Basket weavers near the Four Corners of Law and on the Market are some of the last practitioners of a tradition nearly as old as Charleston itself. In the city's early days African- Americans could be seen pacing the streets or camped out along the busy city intersections hawking their wares.
Before the Civil War some of these mobile vendors were enslaved, forced to sell goods on behalf of their masters. The more fortunate of this group were given permission to sell from their own plots and allowed to keep the profits for their own benefit. Another minority, the freedmen, without a storefront of their own, turned to street vending as a way to make ends meet.
After the Civil War necessity dictated this tradition continue. Entire families took up the craft. Some members would go out in a collection of small craft dubbed "The Mosquito Fleet" to bring in fresh seafood, which was later sold in stalls or out of carts. Other vendors, like the ones pictured on this 1879 photograph, coaxed their goods out of the earth and sold it using nothing more than baskets and their voices.
This remarkable image captures what appears to be three generations (likely a grandmother, mother, and two siblings). Balanced expertly atop the heads of the women are baskets woven in the West African tradition, probably made of local sweet grass. Two of the baskets are filled with what clothing. In a 1963 newspaper feature Ms. Mary Sparkman gave her readers insight on how such heavy a heavy load, usually upwards of 70 lbs. was managed; these baskets "rested on a protecting nest of cloth, twisted and coiled into a sort of thick, flat turban." The young boy in the group carries a bundle of kindling cinched together atop his head.
With limited opportunities after emancipation a number of newly-freed African American families turned full-time back to the long-established profession of street vendor. Often, the children would carry this set of valuable entrepreneurial skills with them into adulthood, imparting it onto the next generation. Modern supermarkets and improvements in refrigeration in the early 20th century heralded the end of this class of street vendor.
Still, glimmers of the old profession can be seen in Charleston. Besides the basket-weavers, there are family-operated stalls in the Market, children on bicycles selling sweetgrass flowers to tourists, and the occasional vegetable or fruit truck still can be spotted on the byways or roads on the surrounding islands.
Michael D. Coker is a Charleston native, published author, and licensed tour guide. He has worked in local museums for 15 years, and has developed a reputation for his extensive knowledge of history. You can reach Michael by email by clicking on the links above.